Let’s Start by Trusting Each Other

Marc Stern, CLiGS

By: Iris Picat

Trust is key to any relationship. That is a well-known truth excessively written about in popular literature. The distinction with a recent article titled The Multidimensionality of Trust: Applications in Collaborative Natural Resource Management co-authored by Marc Stern, Associate Professor at Virginia Tech and Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), is the way it approaches trust. It decomposes its elements and describes four of the forms it takes under the natural resource management umbrella – dispositional trust, rational trust, affinitive trust, and procedural trust.

A blanket definition for trust used by the authors:

“a psychological state in which one actor (the trustor) accepts some form of vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another (the trustee) despite inherent uncertainties in that expectation.”

Within the context of natural resource management, trustees and trustors can take on many shapes, whether they are an entity such as a managing agency, an environmental non-profit or a park superintendent;  a process such as public scoping meetings; or even regulations created to manage resources. Thus, trust can sway compliance and minimize resistance to planning efforts if nurtured appropriately.

While no single process is likely to be befitting of every situation, the authors hope that by offering a consistent lexicon and framework, this article can help guide leadership approaches in the human dimension of natural resource management.

To gain more insight on Marc Stern and the role trust plays in natural resource management, we asked him a few questions.

Q. What spurred you to write an article about trust in terms of natural resource management?

A. Trust has long been known to be important in natural resources. It emerged for me in my doctoral research over ten years ago as the key factor predicting local people’s responses to neighboring national parks. Back then, it was clear to me that trust could emerge from multiple sources. After taking a hard look at research from other disciplines, in particular the management literature, I confirmed my suspicion that the natural resources literature was deficient in its treatment of trust as a multi-faceted concept. Trust is mentioned all the time but rarely explained in any real theoretical depth. I hoped to fill that gap and provide a framework for researchers and practitioners to think a little more deeply about how trust comes about.

Q. Why did you think it was important to draw on research from diverse disciplines?

A. Oftentimes, the greatest service we academics can bring to our fields is to translate ideas from one body of research into another. That’s what I was trying to do in this paper. The management literature, in particular, has gone into great depth on trust, focusing not only on how it comes about and its consequences, but also on some really important real world application, such as trust repair.

Q. How did you determine/narrow down the lexicon and trust forms to just four?

A. Great question. There certainly are many other ways of looking at it. My doctoral student, Kim Coleman, and I spent months looking across the literature on trust in diverse fields. We found dozens of terms and theoretical categories. But as we worked toward applying them to natural resource contexts, we continually came down to the four we discuss in the paper.  We’ve presented these ideas to academic, practitioner, and lay audiences in incredibly diverse contexts and have gotten great feedback. I think we’ve developed a useful framework to consider the key factors that seem to drive the types of relationships necessary for healthy and resilient collaborations.

Q. How do you hope students and incoming practitioners to the field of natural resource management learn or take away from your article?

A. Some of the only things we can be sure of when it comes to natural resource management are that our predictions are always wrought with uncertainty. Ecological, social, and political conditions will constantly change, and science can’t tell us what we should be doing, it can only help us make potentially better predictions. One of the most important questions we can be asking ourselves then becomes: how do we work together to deal with uncertainty in a way that enables us to learn, adapt, and cooperate? While we can’t do much to influence dispositional trust in the short-term, the other three forms of trust are highly actionable.

My colleague and CLiGS fellow, Tim Baird, and I have developed a theory based on these categories we are referring to as “trust ecology.”  In short, the categories of trust we have developed can be thought of as an ecosystem for organizational and institutional arrangements. We have all been part of systems where one type of trust can drive success. For example, affinitive trust in a single charismatic leader can make amazing things happen. However, what happens if that charismatic leader leaves? What happens if there is a performance failure in the network?  What happens if the policy context changes? We propose that while natural resource management systems may be successful with many different configurations of these types of trust, they might only be resilient if they have sufficient stores of all three of the actionable forms of trust: rational, affinitive, and systems-based. If one is compromised (turnover of a trusted colleague, a failure to perform as expected, a change to the decision-making process), the others may serve to prop up the social system while the lost form of trust recovers. As such, we can think of these forms of trust like diverse species in an ecosystem that provide functional redundancy following a storm or other catastrophic event.

The utility of this thinking is that those working within multi-stakeholder networks, like most of us in natural resources, may benefit from paying specific attention to developing all three forms of actionable trust within their networks.

Q. Did one form of trust stand out to you as the strongest for natural resource management specifically?

A. My guess is that this may vary from context to context.  In my doctoral research on national parks in Ecuador, the Caribbean and the United States, and subsequent work in Nepal, we’ve found affinitive trust (that based on personal relationships) to be particularly predictive of important outcomes. Still, I believe all three forms are necessary to some extent for natural resource management systems to be successful over longer time periods.

Marc Stern in LibanoQ. What is your personal interest in collaboration and/or natural resource management?

A. More and more, I don’t think natural resource management can be effective without collaboration between diverse parties. Adversarial stances lead to gridlock and fear to take risks. To address our rapidly changing climate, resource conditions, and social needs, we need to innovate. This works best when diverse groups aren’t afraid to work together and share their diverse talents, ideas, and networks. Of course, this is easier said than done, but I personally believe we can manage our natural resources without always having clear winners and losers.

Q. How do you see these concepts intersecting with the global work you do for CLiGS in Bali, Indonesia?

A. We might consider Bali a poster child for complexity in terms of natural resource management. Governance structures exist at multiple levels throughout the society; formal national laws directly compete with local traditional laws; the influx of expatriates, tourists and foreign investment are rapidly changing the social and ecological structures of the island. The challenges in Bali are immense, and most agree that the government is in no realistic position to address them. Solutions are emerging from a new class of social entrepreneurs who are attempting to work across sectors to address some of Bali’s biggest challenges – trash disposal, marine conservation, land conversion, and water shortages. Bali serves as a complex laboratory for understanding why some efforts fail or succeed. Even a cursory look into these initiatives reveals the importance of trust relationships across diverse stakeholder types. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can learn about trust across cultures that may apply to natural resource management systems broadly.

Find the full article Open Access at Society & Natural Resources: An International Journal